Playoff pressure is in focus at a short track as NASCAR stars bring tensions into Richmond

Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, takes the checkered flag while racing to victory Sunday, April 2, 2023, after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Tim Parks/HHP for Chevy Racing)

Pressure is boiling over as NASCAR’s regular season draws to a close. There are just five races to go as the series heads to Richmond for Sunday’s Cook Out 400 (3 p.m. ET on USA Network, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) before the Playoffs begin.

The biggest tension in the field is up at the top of the points standings. Kyle Larson and Denny Hamlin disagreed on the finish at Pocono that saw Hamlin get the win and Larson get relegated to twentieth.

And both come into Richmond looking for the win. Larson is the defending winner at the track, finding victory lane earlier in the season. Virginia-born Hamlin always looks to add to his four wins at his home track, too.

The all-important Playoff cutline is in full focus at this stage in the season, driving up the intensity.

There are five spots remaining for drivers without a win. Heading into Richmond, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Chris Beuscher, Bubba Wallace, and Michael McDowell hold the positions. But just 17 points separate McDowell from 17th-place AJ Allmendinger.

But one driver who’s not too bothered by the intensity, though, is AJ Allmendinger. He’ll be driving in the Xfinity Series at Road America on Saturday instead of practicing and qualifying.

“I’m going to show up to Road America and put pressure on myself. We’re not doing this for points, we’re doing this to go win a trophy, and that’s what we want to do,” Allmendinger said. “Hopefully, that’s what we do, but at the end of the day, it’s about enjoying yourself.”

As for the potential points sacrifice of starting from the rear of the field, Allmendinger is unconcerned. He says he’s as likely to struggle in the race whether or not he gets extra practice and qualifying.

“Richmond is a place that, with this car, especially, we probably struggled at, so in a way, whether we practice 20 minutes, at times, it doesn’t really make a huge difference,” he pointed out. “Starting in the back is a challenge, but I think Richmond is the racetrack that, if we have the setup right, that you can still move forward.”

Conversely, Daniel Suarez, sitting six points behind Allmendinger, is totally focused on hunting for that Playoff spot.

“We feel like we should be part of the playoffs and that we are strong enough to make some noise once we get in the playoffs,” Suarez maintained.

He lost plenty of ground on the cutline at Pocono, where a wreck at the beginning of Stage 2 meant he finished a frustrating last.

“Extremely disappointed,” he summed up the weekend, “but you can only control what you can control. You get mad but you have to forget about it and move on.”

“We are totally focused on Richmond this week and getting a good finish there,” he added. “There is a lot of racing remaining and we have to focus on today, not what happened last week or what is going to happen in the future.”

Other drivers can forget about points, since their only option is a win.

Two drivers in that position are Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman, who sit 21st and 20th respectively in the points standings.

Bowman did score a win at Richmond in 2021, scoring a surprise win at the track after seizing the lead from a dominant Denny Hamlin. Bowman’s the only winner of the last six races at Richmond who hasn’t scored a win so far this year.

Stewart-Haas Racing drivers Ryan Preece, Chase Briscoe, and Aric Almirola are in must-win positions at this point in the season, but the drivers believe their strong short-track program will help them find that win at this critical point in the season.

“If I could pick one out of the next handful of races to win, I will pick Richmond, hands down. That is the racetrack that I have excelled at the most and have not gone to victory lane,” said Aric Almirola.

“It’s a track that I enjoy and that fits my driving style really well,” echoed Ryan Preece. “With my short-track background, it’s one that I feel confident heading to. My team and I have really been emphasizing on the last few races and this one as our best opportunity to win.”

“We’ve been working hard on our program and I anticipate a strong showing for us,” Preece added.

Stewart-Haas driver Kevin Harvick, on the other hand, may not need a win, but he certainly wants one. His points position is safe headed into the Playoffs, barring five new winners, since he sits 163 points above the cutline. But it’s his final season of a two-decade career, and so far it’s a winless one.

He’s got four wins at Richmond, tying him with Denny Hamlin on the track win list for active drivers, only trailing Kyle Busch’s six wins.

“Richmond falls into that flat-track category and we’ve always been really good at the flat-track stuff,” he said to explain his success. “As I’ve gone through the years, Richmond has just been one of those places that’s been really good.”

“It’s one of my favorites to go to, and I’m glad we finally got to victory lane because we’ve had some good nights and some good cars there, and to be able to pull that off last year was good for everybody. Richmond is just a good short track,” he concluded.

Martin Truex, who’s won three times at the track, does intend to spoil those drivers’ chances, though.

“I love the track, it’s great. Been very successful there,” he acknowledged. “I think we’ve improved our program a ton and have been putting on a show at some of the short tracks and places like Richmond.”

Truex predicts a good race, regardless of his result.

“I really enjoy the track because it’s kind of unique,” he explained. “It’s a short track, but it races like a bigger track than it is. You can really move around there the way the tires wear out and the track is really slippery, and that makes it fun and a challenge, and it’s always a good race for the fans.”

Practice and Busch Light Pole Qualifying take place Saturday and will air on USA network from 12:35-2:30 p.m. ET.

Xfinity Series goes road racing at the always-unpredictable Road America

Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin plays host to Saturday afternoon’s Road America 180 (3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), and it also hosts an impressive series record: the longest streak of different winners, at 13.

AJ Allmendinger, Jeremy Clements, and Justin Allgaier are all hoping to spoil that record by scoring their second win at the track. All three are competing on Saturday.

Allgaier might have the best record on road courses in the series this season, but Cole Custer has won twice, at Portland and Chicago. He’s hoping to add to that total, though he understands the difficulties very well.

“There’s just so much that plays into these road courses, so you have to be prepared for anything it throws at you. There are so many different factors with the restarts and whether guys make mistakes or not. You just hope that you’re there to fight at the end of it all,” he explained.

“So I think as long as we keep ourselves in a good position, have some solid speed in our Ford Mustang, and avoid making any big mistakes, we’ll have a shot to go to victory lane again this weekend.”

Custer’s teammate Riley Herbst has his own motivation, sitting right on the Playoff cutline with seven regular-season races remaining and just seven drivers with a win locking them into the twelve-driver postseason.

“Road America is always a fun place to go race,” Herbst said. “The fans are awesome, and it’s just such a unique road course. There’s a lot of room to move around and try to pass, but it can also get you into some trouble just like any other road course.”

He comes into Road America 26 points to the good above the cutline.

“We’ve been decent on road courses this year,” Herbst said, “and I’m hoping that we can get a good run this weekend in Wisconsin.”

Parker Kligerman is just behind, sitting 13th heading into the road course.

Notably, Connor Mosack will be driving the No. 19 Toyota Supra for Joe Gibbs Racing. It’s his first start at Road America in the Xfinity Series but his fourth race at the track: the 24-year-old spent two years in the Trans-Am TA2 series, where he picked up two wins and five poles.

“I think the most helpful thing I got from Trans Am, aside from laps on road courses, is just that the top guys in that series are really strong and have years of road-racing experience,” Mosack said.

“Being around those guys made me a much better racer, and it’s certainly helped this year as I’ve gone up against a lot of really experienced drivers in the Xfinity Series.”

Practice (5 p.m. ET) followed by qualifying for the Road America 180 is set for Friday and will be televised on USA Network and streamed on the NBC Sports App.

Truck Series decides regular season championship in short-track style at Richmond

Saturday’s Worldwide Express 250 at Richmond Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will crown the regular-season champion of the NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series and usher in the Playoffs.

Six winners and one driver clinched on points mean three spots are still available. Matt DiBenedetto, Nick Sanchez, and Matt Crafton currently hold those positions, but Crafton is just nine points ahead of 11th-place Stewart Friesen.

Zane Smith, Grant Enfinger, Ben Rhodes, Christian Eckes and Carson Hocevar have also already secured their positions in the Playoffs with a win.

But the race is also happening up front. Corey Heim, who currently holds the points lead, needs just 19 points in the race to secure the regular season title and the 15 Playoff point bonus that offers vital extra momentum in the postseason.

The 2023 NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series Playoffs will begin Aug. 8 at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park.

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA – AUGUST 13: Matt Crafton, driver of the #88 Ideal Door/Menards Toyota, and Tyler Ankrum, driver of the #16 LiUNA! Toyota, race during the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Worldwide Express 250 for Carrier Appreciation at Richmond Raceway on August 13, 2022 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Cook Out 400
The Place: Richmond Raceway
The Date: Sunday, July 30
The Time: 3 p.m. ET
The Purse: $7,565,800
TV: USA, 2:30 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 300 miles (400 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 70),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 230), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 400)

NASCAR Xfinity Series
Next Race: Road America 180
The Place: Road America
The Date: Saturday, July 29
The Time: 3 p.m. ET
The Purse: $1,347,310
TV: NBC, 2:30 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 182.16 miles (45 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 22),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 34), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 45)

Next Race: Worldwide Express 250
The Place: Richmond Raceway
The Date: Saturday, July 29
The Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $808,354
TV: FS1, 7 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 187.5 miles (250 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 70),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 140), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 250)

Owen Johnson